Friday, 13 June 2014



For those who don’t know much about Dutch football and its attack-minded traditions, suffice to say that this is a bit of a shock. Sure, at the last World Cup, Holland got far despite not playing to the standard of their lofty traditions; but that was a different coach. That was Bert van Maarwijk, a tough-nosed, blue-collar kind of cat. A Rotterdam guy.

Louis van Gaal is supposed to be above all that. Van Gaal is from the Ajax school; he has even gone so far as to say Ajax is in his heart. Attacking football- in either a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-3- is supposed to be in his blood. 

For a man who has coached Holland, Ajax and even Barcelona to say he is playing with five defenders, it’s… I don’t even know. It’s like Springsteen lip-synching. It’s like Banksy painting on a canvas. Then posting a selfie.

I am not someone who will get too attached to old philosophies, as long as the new methods work; had that 2010 squad managed to win the damn thing, I would be sticking my fingers in my ears and screaming “NEE NEE NEE NEE” the moment Johan Cruyff was rolled in front of a camera to give his contrarian disapproval. 

But for Van Gaal- him, specifically- to get the lay of the land and decide that he needs extra support in back rather than fireworks in front? Well, that’s a bit rich. Because for my money, Van Gaal has come to that realization 13 years and 3 months too late.


In the summer of 1999, having suddenly relocated from Chicago to Amsterdam for a job earlier that year, I moved into a large, three story apartment on the Leidsestraat above a McDonald’s near the center of town. I was one of nine guys who lived in the place at any given time, and the only non-native; in the sitcom of my life, I wasn’t even the main character- I was the wacky foreign roommate

Having failed to acquire a love of football while in the States (the sport had little foothold in Chicago proper, where the the Pro Sports Cartel ruled young sporting hearts), it was here, with my eight new roommates and their various friends, that the beginnings of an understanding and a love of the game would be fostered in my willing soul.

I learned about the Dutch philosophy of football, which we need not get into too much here, as it is far more eloquently broken down other places (nowhere better than in David Winner’s fantastic book Brilliant Orange). In the summer of 2000, I saw those philosophies put into glorious action.

I have heard it said that you cannot love soccer until it breaks your heart. Well then, that summer was unmistakably when the love affair truly began. Because this heart was well and truly broke.

Euro 2000 was co-hosted by Belgium and the Netherlands, the first time either country had hosted a major tournament. My roommates, who had a bit of a fraternity spirit that they had acquired from their time together in, well, a fraternity, knew how to do it right; displaying the detailed measuring skills one might expect from a nation with such a distinct understanding of space, they converted our living room into bleachers. 

Over the course of those three weeks, there was considerable joy, and considerable lack of sobriety, as Holland charged into the semi-finals, where it all quite famously, and, I would come to realize, not particularly shockingly, went to shit

Later that night, Dutch TV showed footage of Holland’s coach, Frank Rijkaard, forlorn on the bench, stuck to his seat long after the match had ended, weeping quietly in an empty stadium. The image haunts me still.

In a way, watching that team lose- that glorious team of Bergkamp, Kluivert, Overmars, Davids, Stam, the de Boers, Van der Sar- watching that team lose may have made me more of a fan than watching them win could have done. I became, and shall remain, an Oranje fan for life.

At this point, I went Full Metal Holland. I joined the Supportersclub Oranje, and endeavored to go to all their home qualifiers for their march towards the 2002 World Cup, a march made inevitable by the addition of the best Dutch coach alive: Louis van Gaal.

For those who don’t know LvG (as I didn’t in 2000), there are two primary things to be aware of:

  1. He is a phenomenal coach. He was won the Champions League, and has also been a losing finalist with two different clubs over ten years apart. He was won the Dutch league (four times with two different clubs), the Spanish league (twice) and the German league. He knows what he’s doing. 
  2. He is phenomenally arrogant.
    This just part and parcel of who LvG is. A Google search for “Louis van Gaal arrogant” returns over 67,000 results. At times he has been known as much for being surly, prickly and insufferable, as he has for winning football matches. 
And his ego was never in greater pomp than in his first tenure as Dutch national team manager.

After winning the Champions League in 1995, Van Gaal’s Ajax was a losing finalist the following year, then a semi-finalist in 1997. From there he went to Barcelona, where he immediately won the Spanish league two times in a row, before settling for a Champions League semi-final finish in 2000. At both stops, his relationship with the local media was tempestuous at best, straight-up hateful at worst. Oh, and somewhere in there the Queen of the Netherlands made him a fucking knight. So yeah, at this point, our Louis was feeling pret-ty good about himself.

He should not have been.

When LvG arrived, Holland was the favorite to win their qualifying group, though it was obvious that getting past Portugal- led by the great Luis Figo- would be a formidable challenge. The only other minor threat was little ol’ Ireland, who were surely no threat at all. Even if Holland somehow failed to win their group, they would clearly finish second, and go on to destroy some poor second-tier side in a playoff.

Holland’s first qualifier was against middling Ireland in Amsterdam (a game was delighted to attend). The Irish, led by the fearless Roy Keane, went up 2-0, before a late Holland comeback secured a 2-2 draw. In a vacuum, a home draw against Ireland is a pretty embarrassing result for so mighty a side; but no one worried at the time.

A while later I went to Rotterdam for the arrival of Portugal; another reversal, this time a 2-0 loss. Again, no one was too concerned, especially as the loss came with a handy excuse- Portugal’s first goal came after the Dutch had stopped playing because they thought they heard a ref’s whistle, which turned out to be from the Portugal section of the stands. 

I don’t remember what Van Gaal was saying in the press at the time, and my Dutch isn’t good enough to dig around the interwebs to find it. But I do recall that the Dutch football press was challenging him, and he was being a characteristic dick about it.

But what did I know? Supportersclub Kaart or no, I was new to the country and new to the sport, following a qualifying campaign for the very first time; who was I to doubt anything?


In March of 2001- thirteen years and three months ago- Holland went to Porto for an obviously vital match; I watched with my roommates in our living room, which was then in its normal, bleacherless state. If Holland couldn’t win this match, bleacherless was how the room would remain for some time, and we all knew it.

The Dutch attack were in top form that night. By midway through the second half, they had reasserted their might, holding on to a 2-0 lead on the road. They looked imperious and dominant. Holland was back and the World Cup was only 15 months ahead, and Rijkaard’s tears would be wiped away! MAKE WAY FOR THE BLEACHERS!

Now I’m no soccer coach, nor any sort of tactician. But by then I had come to glean a tenet or two. One fairly reliable rule of thumb is- when you have a two-goal lead in a vital World Cup qualifier on the road against a powerful opponent, it might be advisable to throw on an extra defender or two.

Even if you’re a dogmatic Narcissist who feels the need to prove a point to your opponents, as well as to critics and ghosts, maybe just go ahead and consider the point best proved by a final score that reads 2-0.

Alas, Louis is a knight. And no one tells knights what to do.

In the 72nd minute, leading 2-0 and leaving Portugal looking helpless and bewildered, Van Gaal saw fit to replace Boudewijn Zenden, an attacking midfielder, with… a striker, Roy Makaay. Van Gaal now had three strikers on the pitch- Makaay, Kluivert and Hasselbaink, plus Overmars prowling the wing.

Eight minutes later, Van Gaal replaced Hasselbaink with… another striker. Pierre van Hooijdonk, a prolific but concrete-footed giant.

Three strikers. On the road. Leading by two. With ten minutes left. 

These are the tactics of a vindictive weirdo whose wings can be only be made of wax. Even I, a neophyte, knew that this was comical hubris. I got the sense that the Portuguese knew too, and did so immediately. They seemed emboldened by this slap in the face, as if this obvious foolhardiness had reminded them that Holland, while great, was a team well prone to collapses of their own design. Three minutes after Van Hooijdonk entered the match, Pauleta scored. In injury time, Figo added a penalty. Final score: 2-2

Many will say that the cause was not lost until September 1st of that year, when Holland went to Dublin and lost 1-0. But I know better.

Holland’s place in the World Cup wasn’t given up over ninety minutes in Dublin; it was chucked in the dumpster over the course of 13 minutes in Porto, and the culprit was Louis van Gaal, Knight of the Realm.


That World Cup- which Van Gaal must surely see as his Lost Tournament- would go on to be won by Brazil. In Japan and South Korea that summer, Brazil essentially had a three-pronged attack of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, who were surrounded not by players of classically Brazilian attacking quality, but by tacklers and ball-winners.

Which brings us to 2014, where Van Gaal is planning a three-pronged attack of Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder, who will be surrounded not by players of classically Dutch attacking quality, but by tacklers and ball-winners. Cruyff cannot be pleased.

As for Van Gaal, I have one question- NOW he throws on extra defenders!?! 

Instead of just doing it for fifteen minutes in 2001, he’s going to do it for the entire summer of 2014!?!

A five-man back line for Holland. Never thought I’d see the day. Tjonge jonge jonge…

I never did get to watch a World Cup in those bleachers. By the time 2006 rolled around, I had moved back to America, having packed all my things in an orange suitcase that I still employ to this very day. Van Gaal, it seems, is the one trying to deal with baggage now.

- Brendan Hunt

ADDENDUM - With kickoff against Spain coming in a little over half an hour, let me acknowledge that, of course, formations aren't everything. You can have an attacking sensibility even with five at the back. It's just that you might as well have them when you're winning by two on the road...


  1. 5-1, you were saying?

    1. Extra defenders! Clearly a good idea! Has been since 2001!